Save It For Later: 2021 SFFILM Festival

May 11, 2021 at 6:37 am Leave a comment

Sing Me A Lullaby, 2020

Before COVID-19 upended our lives I was a big-screen film snob. Living in San Francisco, with its year-round calendar of world-class film festivals as well as rep theaters such as the Pacific Film Archive, the Roxie, and the Castro, it was easy to consume a steady diet of a huge range of cinematic treats solely in movie theaters. All of that changed with the pandemic, and as we enter the second year of the age of coronavirus pretty much all film festivals have shifted online. The SFFILM Festival’s 2021 edition was no exception, and as usual it presented a broad spectrum of international programming. Though my time was very impacted I was able to catch several outstanding movies.

Quixotic, A Leave, 2021

I really enjoyed South Korean director Lee Ran-hee’s impressive debut feature, A Leave, which is a small slice of life about an out-of-work laborer who’s been suing his former employer for the past five years. While manning a protest station in Seoul with a few other diligent souls his daughters who are living apart from him in a Seoul exoburb have entered their teen years and grown up without him. When he returns home for a brief week he cleans the house, fixes the sink, does itinerant labor at a small furniture-making shop and gradually re-enters his family’s life. But his duty as a protestor calls him back to Seoul despite his older daughter’s pleas for him to abandon his quixotic cause. Gritty and realistic, this humanistic portrait shows the crushing weight of workers who live hand to mouth in a neoliberal economy. 

Delicate, Radiograph of A Family, 2021

Also outstanding was Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani’s personal documentary, Radiograph of A Family. Tracing her parents’ relationship starting in the 1960s from their meeting in Switzerland, when her father, who was educated in the West, met her mother, who was younger than her husband, more conservative and more religious. The film follows their lives together in both Europe and Iran, where her mother became a  teacher and an activist during the Islamic revolution. Using archival footage and photographs, home movies, and fictional and non-fictional dialog Khosrovani creates a delicate, fascinating portrait of a family caught up in great historical events. 

Observational, Cuban Dancer, 2020

Roberto Salinas’ unobtrusive observational documentary Cuban Dancer follows aspiring ballet dancer Alexis Valdes from age 15 from his home in Cuba to the US where he trains in Florida at a private dance academy. The film includes some failures and some successes as Alexis adjusts to his life in a very different environment from the nurturing world he left behind in Cuba, as he gradually learns English and makes friends in the US. This is the third documentary I’ve seen about Cuban performing artists  this year, the other two being the outstanding Los Hermanos/The Brothers and the somewhat more pedestrian but still enjoyable Soy Cubana. Cuban Dancer falls somewhere in between the two of them, as it lacks the cultural and political context of Los Hermanos but has a sturdier and more compelling narrative than Soy Cubana. Postscript: Alexis Valdes went on to attend the San Francisco Ballet School and is now an apprentice dancer in the company. 

Culture, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, 2021

The festival also included several mid-length films with running times between 30-50 minutes. Created as promotional material for his album of the same name, hip hop artist Topaz Jones’ essay film Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is structured around replicating the Black ABCs, the iconic flashcards created in the 1970s by a pair of Black educators in Chicago in an attempt to center African American culture. Jones’ film similarly focuses on the Black experience, blending archival footage, staged vignettes, and interviews with Black intellectuals.  Tiffany Hsiung’s mid-length documentary, Sing Me A Lullaby, follows her mother Ru Wen’s journey back to Taiwan to find her own mother who she hasn’t seen since she was five years old. This emotional doc captures the sense of loss and longing among exiles as it traces Ru Wen’s poignant story. 

Engaging, Skies of Lebanon, 2020

The last film I managed to see was Chloé Mazlo’s narrative feature, Skies of Lebanon. Charming and inventive, the film follows the lives of Joseph, a Lebanese rocket scientist and  Alice, a Swiss expat who moves to Lebanon in the 1950s to escape her oppressive family life. Joseph and Alice fall in love and marry, raising their daughter in 1960s Lebanon among a large and affectionate family.  Beginning in 1975, the long destruction of the Lebanese Civil War takes its toll and gradually most of Alice and Joseph’s extended family flees Beirut, including her beloved daughter Mona. Like Radiograph of A Family, this film looks at the effect of history’s upheavals on everyday individuals. Director Mazlo is a French Lebanese  animator and artist and Skies of Lebanon, her first feature film, uses claymation, subtle CGI, theatrical devices, magic realism, and surrealism, as well as some really beautiful, economical storytelling, to spin its engaging tale. 

Though I appreciate the ease of viewing that comes with streaming films at home on my laptop it’s still no substitute for watching movies in a theater with a crowd of like-minded cineastes. Still, until it’s safe for us all to go back to the cinema, I appreciate SFFILM’s thoughtful and varied programming. It’s a balm in a year of deprivation.

Entry filed under: film festival, film festivals, SFFILM. Tags: , , .

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